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Two of the most delightful rivers of France, the Lot and the Garonne, give their name to a departement in the Southwest whose exact location happily still eludes all but the most discriminating tourist, even at the height of summer. Its quiet roads wind their way between exquisite villages past vivid fields of sunflowers, set against a backdrop of gently undulating hills.
The Lot-et-Garonne has its share of ruined castles in exotic locations, of which Bonaguil, Gavaudun and Nérac are easily the best. But it is best known for its medieval bastides, fortified new towns built on key cross-roads and whose focal point was no longer the lord’s chateau but the peasants’ market square. They remain the centre of rural communities where visitors quickly adapt to the languid pace of life.
The bastide town of Villeneuve, on the Lot, has a fourteenth century gate that for the intrepid traveller indicated the start of the dusty road to Paris. Nowadays it marks the start of an agreeable pedestrian shopping district and a flea market held on Saturday afternoons offering an eclectic range of items. For the more serious bargain hunter, the nearby village of Pujols has an excellent range of antiques but you should never pay the asking price.
The main town, Agen, with its charming seventeenth century houses, lies to the south, on the Garonne. Where once barges hauled coal and wood, pleasure cruisers motor self-importantly up and down the river. They may be hired by the day from the canal basin at Agen but many do not get far: they can be seen moored for hours on the waterfront while their occupants sample the excellent local bars and restaurants.
Agen’s citizens are proud of their museum, and so they should be. It contains no fewer than five pictures by Goya, including a Self-Portrait, painted in 1783, when Goya was 37. Those energetic enough to ascend the Renaissance spiral staircase will also be rewarded with the sight of a slightly less well known painting, the nineteenth century View of the Seine by one Frank Bogges of Oldham.
Almost every village has at least one restaurant, where the table settings may be unpretentious but the food is nearly always of an astonishingly high standard. Traditional Lot-et-Garonne cuisine includes pâté de foie gras and delicious magret de canard, stuffed duck breast in a rich wine sauce. Menu prices are extremely competitive, making it possible to eat out almost every day if you wish.
Lot-et-Garonne is a paradise for the gourmet, with its hams, prunes, walnuts and truffles. Agen prunes are also bottled in Armagnac, one of a variety of combinations available with France’s oldest brandy. Many farms sell old Armagnac, matured in oak, direct to the public from roadside stalls. This is a popular present to take home but the tranquil atmosphere cannot be bottled: for another taste of that, you have to come back next year.
Lock at Nérac
Agen theatre and museum
Château Henri IV, Nérac
© Dominique's Villas